Schubert composed two four-movement works for piano trio, plus two one-movement works for the same group of instruments. All four works are on this 2-CD set. The trios in B-flat and E-flat were both composed in late 1827. There's no record of the B-flat being performed in the remaining year of Schubert's life, but the E-flat was performed at an all-Schubert concert in March 1828 and published later that year.
The B-flat trio is not as well known as the E-flat one, but it is every bit as beautiful. It's a sunny work throughout, with each movement in a major key. The bittersweet "smiling through tears" characteristic of much of Schubert's late music is not apparent here. Of particular note is the gorgeous melody of the second movement andante, based on a four-note motif. The first movement has one of Schubert's best development sections. The finale is a spirited sonata-rondo. The Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio take fairly leisurely tempos throughout this work, which does bring out the lyricism inherent in this music. Perhaps the tempo is too relaxed in the scherzo, which kind of plods along, but overall they give a respectable performance of the B-flat. At times, the piano tends to overwhelm the strings, an all too frequent occurrence in piano trio performances.
The E-flat trio is a more dramatic work than the B-flat. The well-known second movement andante, used in several movies, most notably in Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon," is based on a Swedish song, "se solen sjunker" (Lo, the sun is setting) that Schubert heard sung in Vienna around the time he was composing the trio. It's a haunting melody of a very melancholic nature. The third movement scherzando is largely in canon between the piano and one or the other string, with an almost brash trio. In the long finale, the Swedish theme of the second movement reappears in the development and again in the coda. Before he sent it to the publisher, Schubert cut 98 measures from the finale, mostly from the development section, but both versions are performed today. K-L-R perform the version with the cuts, but some other trio groups, such as the Stuttgart Trio, perform the original version. The acclaimed Florestan Trio performs both finale versions on their recording of the E-flat.
Being a more dramatic work, the E-flat calls for a more emphatic approach. The K-L-R Trio, with its preference for slower tempos and mellow playing, lacks the dramatic impact that some other trios bring to the work, such as the Beaux Arts and especially the Stuttgart Trio. There's a balancing act required between letting Schubert's lyricism sing and also pointing up the dramatic climaxes. The Beaux Arts gets it just right; K-L-R doesn't quite, in my opinion, though they come close in the finale. Still, there's much lovely playing to be heard here. One thing I noticed a few times in both trios are concluding chords where the cello seems to come in early and then holds the note. Maybe that's just a stylistic effect, but I found it somewhat jarring.
The other works for trio are the "Notturno in E-flat," also composed in 1827 and possibly Schubert's original slow movement for the B-flat trio, later discarded, and an early sonata movement composed by a 15 year old Schubert, probably as an exercise for his teacher at the time, Antonio Salieri. The Notturno, in simple ternary form, opens with quiet lullaby-like theme, followed by a livelier middle section. Whatever the original intention, it makes a fine stand-alone piece. The early work in sonata form is Mozartian, but already some individual Schubertian traits, such as his adventurous key changes, are evident. K-L-R are very good in the Notturno, definitely their kind of music, and they turn in a respectable performance of the infrequently heard early work.
Finally, the CD set has a bonus, a recording of the three-movement Sonata in A-minor for Arpeggione and Piano (D 821), composed in 1824. The arpeggione was a six-stringed guitar-like instrument that was bowed rather than plucked. For a brief time it was popular, and Schubert was fascinated by its musical possibilities and composed this sonata. But the instrument soon fell out of favor and was obsolete by the time D 821 was published several years after Schubert's death. As a result, the arpeggione part was transcribed for cello, but since the arpeggione had wider tonal range and the bowing was different, some compromises were made in doing the transcription. Even in that form, it's one of Schubert's most beautiful and lyrical works and deserves more performances than it gets. The K-L-R cellist and pianist give a splendid performance; here the pianist tones down and lets the cellist shine. They emphasize the lyricism of this quite lyrical composition. I also have a recording of this work by Wu Han at the piano and her husband David Finckel playing the cello. It's also a fine rendition, but I think the edge goes to the Kalichstein-Robinson duo.
The sound quality of this recent release is quite excellent; one almost gets the feeling that the trio are in the room. The enclosed brochure gives detailed notes about each of the compositions along with a bio of the K-L-R Trio. The cost is a relative bargain for the amount and overall quality of the music. I personally prefer the recordings of the Beaux Arts Trio, but the 1960's sound, while quite good, isn't up to today's standards. If you like your Schubert taken relatively slowly, with fine lyrical qualities, and you don't mind the relative lack of punch especially in the E-flat trio, then this may be the recording for you. It's also available for download as MP3 files.